December 1, 2013 10:01 pm

Book review: ‘Confidence’, by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean©Getty

Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean: self-belief is not always good

Confidence: the surprising truth about how much you need and how to get it, by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Profile, RRP£12.99

Confidence is key to success. We hear it all the time. In careers, business, investments and love, what counts is confidence. That is a fallacy according to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London. Confidence alone did not propel Barack Obama to become the first black president of the US, win Roger Federer numerous tennis tournaments or make Richard Branson a billionaire entrepreneur.

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In fact, the reason for their success is much more boring, he asserts in Confidence. “They are exceptionally competent. It takes an extraordinary amount of talent – and even more hard work – to attain such levels of competence.” The unusual thing about these successful people’s confidence, he argues is that “it is an accurate reflection of their competence. This sets them apart from the majority of superconfident people, who are just not very competent.”

The cult of confidence can be damaging he writes, in this compelling and zippy book. “Those who lack confidence feel guilty and ashamed, and those who feel confident have unrealistic expectations about what their confidence will help them accomplish.”

Misplaced confidence, he points out, can cause harm. The 2008 crisis may have never happened if it was not for inflated confidence in the products financial institutions were selling and buying. Many of the homeowners who defaulted on mortgages may not have borrowed so much money if they had felt less confident about their ability to make the mortgage payments.

 

Social media, he argues, means that people are obsessed with “maintaining extreme positive self-views and unrealistically high levels of confidence”. With Facebook, we can curate the image we portray of ourselves. And more often than not, it is a positive image we are showing off. This is what he calls the “confidence and competence illusion”.

Instead of striving to become more confident, we should, he suggests, embrace our low confidence. People who are overconfident do little to improve their performance or skills. Why would they if they are satisfied with themselves? He tells a personal anecdote to prove his point. Early on in his career he was asked to speak to retailers and designers on the psychology of shoe purchases, a subject he knew nothing about. Coaxed by his realisation that he could fall flat on his face in front of his audience, he decided to prepare. Consequently he delivered a well-received speech.

“High confidence,” he writes, “can be a curse because it can stop you from improving. If you are really satisfied with your performance you will tend to ignore negative feedback, distorting reality in your favour. By the same token, lower confidence can be a blessing if it helps you pinpoint your weaknesses and motivates you to improve.”

This sounds logical and pleasing to those of us who do not labour under the huge weight of overconfidence. However, there are some less substantiated points. The key one being that people like working with people who are nice rather than arrogant. “Gentle, generous and modest people end up doing better,” he argues. This is hard to quantify in an era of faux-modesty and humble-bragging. And everyone has worked with people who manage up and are horrid to their underlings, yet climb their way up the corporate ladder.

Nonetheless, this is an excellent antidote to the over-exuberant and narcissistic self-help industry. To focus on improving our competencies will surely take us further than having overinflated belief in ourselves.

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